From the Harry Potter book to “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat” is something of a jump, but there I went. S’good book. Deeply peculiar, very interesting, occasionally happy, often a little sad, as are most tales of aberrant psychology. The story of a blind woman who, after sixty years of having virtually no use of her hands, became a brilliant sculptor was deeply cool.
The bit that interested me the most, however, was the commentary on the visions of St. Hildegard, a minor visionary of the Middle Ages, who did elaborate woodcuts of her bizarre mystical visions. Obviously you can’t diagnose a thousand years late, but the suggestion was that she suffered either severe migraines, or epilepsy with attendant hallucinations.
The reason this was interesting to me was because I squinted at one of the woodcuts and said “If that was in neon, then I’ve seen that!”
I get migraines, you see–not particularly bad ones, I hasten to add, nothing crippling. Well, not permanently crippling. My mother got them far worse than I do–a really killer one could lay her out for days, even weeks. (At one point, she had such a severe one that she couldn’t keep fluids down, got severely dehydrated, passed out on the bathroom floor, and my grandmother, who was one of the most poised human beings I’ve ever met said “Oh, lord,” and rushed her to the emergency room. That doesn’t happen to me.) Mine don’t hurt particularly badly–often there’s no pain at all, I’m just sensitive to glare, and then my blind spot grows to encompass large segments of my field of vision. (This is always sort of interesting, because you never appreciate how much your brain fills in that blind spot until, for example, you can stick your whole hand in it and it disappears. Hours of slightly nervous fun.) I don’t get particularly disoriented, although if I’m far gone, it gets a little difficult to concentrate and hold a complete conversation–it’s like my brain, which is normally highly adept at thinking in words, shuts the words off completely, and I cannot think of a sentence in advance. (Oddly enough, if I just start talking, I can usually get what I’m trying to say across, in roundabout fashion, but I have the odd sensation that talking is now being run on autopilot, in sort of the same way that walking is–you don’t think about lifting your feet, some part of your brain just handles it because it needs to get done. Same thing.)
Getting migraines, however, in the minefield of my existence, rates no more than a pile of inconveniently placed dog poo. I can almost always feel them coming, they’re generally triggered by a combination of caffiene withdrawal and glare or eyestrain, usually during certain times of the month and mostly I say “Goddamnit,” chug a coke, and sleep for about two hours, whereupon I’m fine. This happens erratically–I can go for months, even a year, without one, or very rarely, I’ll get two in a week. I almost always feel them coming on, and the only time they were dangerous was when I worked a 45 minute commute from work, in which case…well, the last few minutes of the drive were always heart-pounding. Once you can lose the entire driver’s side mirror in your blindspot, you have no damn business behind the wheel. But working at home now, the issue just doesn’t come up.
Every now and again, however very rarely, I get what’s called “migraine with aura” (although they have a more scientific term now that I can’t recall) which includes rather peculiar visual distortions. The first migraine I recall getting that I knew was a migraine and not just a headache was such, and it was friggin’ bizarre. I had been sitting in some idiotic training session–management had invented a new acronym or something–and I gradually became aware that there was a flaw in my vision, a jagged infarction of wiggling neon herringbone across my left eye. Damnedest thing I never-quite-saw, since being in my brain, rather than my eye, I couldn’t actually focus on it. It was surrounded by gold sparkly bits, and had the high-resolution jitter that you used to get on the old Deluxe-Paint stuff when you ran it in high-res mode, and when I looked around, it stayed in the exact same place on my field of vision and didn’t shift like something on my eyeball would. (Y’know, like those floaty things you get occasionally–the remnants of fetal membrane that got trapped in your ocular fluid when your eyeballs closed up.)
This memory of the weird visual flaw came back to me looking at these woodcuts by St. Hildegard, and reading the description of seeing these strange glowing visual artifacts–“The light which I see is not located, but yet is more brilliant than the sun, nor can I examine its height, length, or breadth, and I name it “the cloud of living light.” And the woodcuts, albeit monochromatic and festooned with angels, were the same jagged, starry banded lines that I wandered down to the nurse with.
“I’m seeing a weird visual artifact,” I said. “It’s like a neon herringbone flaw in my vision.” (I remember being very calm, and rather bemused by the whole thing. Then again, I had health insurance then, what did I care?)
“It’s not a dark curtain falling down over your entire field of vision, is it?” (That’s a symptom of detached retinas.)
“Uh, no. I’m just seeing this weird bright…flaw.”
After a minute of two of making me look at the various lights to insure that I wasn’t about to detach a retina, which is, I’m told, a Very Bad Thing: “Anyone in your family get migraines?”
“Congratulations! So do you. It’s “migraine with aura,” and it happens sometimes. Apparently it’s been cropping up more in the last few years. Any pain?”
Self-diagnosis is absolutely the worst kind, and I have nothing but generalized contempt for people who decide that they can’t just have poor social skills and feel isolated, they must have “fill-in-the-blank” disorder, because of course no other human in the history of the world has ever felt so isolated and special as them. So I state categorically that I dunno what the hell St. Hildegard had, and it’s only tangentially possible that my occasional random visual artifacts are of a similiar sort, and no matter what it was, hers were way worse, since it obviously defined her entire existence, and migraines are barely a footnote in mine. But it was still interesting, as much because of the radical different in our mindsets. I can imagine–this is purely fanciful, but it’s fun–that here we have two young women, both of them suddenly stricken with peculiar visual distortions, and one of them decides that she’s seeing the city of God, and the other says, “Hmm,” and being a generally hard-headed rationalist goes and describes it in fairly clinical terms. Didn’t even occur to me that it might be the city of God. But that’s cultural climate for you–a thousand years ago, I’d probably have been up there on the battlements seeing the fall of angels as well.
Which one of us got the better end of the bargain, I’ll leave to the reader–maybe it’d be nice to see transports of angels instead of “great, migraine visuals, I need a nap.” But hey, you take what you can get.